Train Like A Shaolin Monk

What weekend warriors can learn from warrior monks.

If our current age of fitness has showed us anything, it’s that strength is both physical and mental; one is only as strong as the other. Nothing exemplifies this better than the mastery of Shaolin monks.

Revered for their strength, flexibility, mental toughness, and fidelity to tradition, these warrior monks perform extraordinary feats. They balance their bodyweight on two fingers, break bricks with their skulls, and stop spears with their necks.

But how do the monks perform such skills? At the USA Shaolin Temple in Manhattan, monks rigorously follow Chan philosophy, or ‘action meditation’, says Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, the temple’s founder who was raised in a Shaolin temple in China.

In Chan, it’s believed that the temple is everywhere. So meditation doesn’t just mean sit-down-and-close-your-eyes-meditation. “Every single action is meditation,” explains Yan-Ming. Playing tennis, swimming, or jogging might be your form of zen, he says. “Any action where you can express your life is action meditation.”

For the monks, action meditation comes in the form of kung fu: movements and bodyweight exercises like stretches, stances, kicks, and jumps that push mind and body to the limits. “To become a warrior monk you have to understand that the philosophy and the martial arts are one—you can’t separate them,” Yan-Ming says. “Become the strength, endurance, and positive energy.”

Dedication matters, too. While Yan-Ming notes that everyone is different and all monks are different (some dedicate more time to prayer, others to fitness), we can all fight the chatter in our mind. “Don’t make excuses. It’s easy to say ‘I don't have time,’ or ‘My body is not feeling well from yesterday’s training.’ Life has pain. But stop yourself and push yourself forward,” he says.

To work your way toward warrior status, start with these moves from Yan-Ming and the USA Shaolin Temple, included in Yan-Ming’s book Shaolin Workout: 28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior's Way.Find out more: Well Packed Presented by Cathay Pacific

side stretch

Stand straight and lace fingers together. Lift arms straight overhead with elbows straight, palms facing up. Stretch arms up, looking up at hands without going onto the balls of feet. Stretch left, leaning from waist. Stand straight. Stretch right. Repeat 10 times on each side.

front slap kick (caijiao)

This is the basic first kick, which starts off most classes at the USA Shaolin Temple and wakes up the body. Stand straight with feet together. Take a small step forward with left leg, foot fully extended, onto toes. Kick straight up with right leg (without bending knee). At the same time, slap foot at the highest point of the kick with hand. Then, lower that leg to the toes quickly. Repeat 10 times on each side. To travel, slap kick right foot then switch to a left kick, slapping with left hand.

bow stance (gong bu)

In bow stance, three Shaolin harmonies are represented: hand to foot, elbow and knee, and shoulder and hip. Stand straight and turn head and body to the left. Pivot feet and bring right arm out at chest height with bent elbow, fingers pointing left; left hand is open at the waist. Keep shoulders and upper body straight, step left leg in front of you, bending knee while striking with left arm palm out. Keep right leg straight. Turn body right, pivoting left foot and turning 180 degrees. Curl left arm in front of chest; strike with right arm while bringing right foot down. Turn and repeat 10 times on each side.

horse stance (ma bu)

This stance (as with all Shaolin stances) is never static. Try to push more, relax your body, and extend. Lower yourself into a squat with toes turned out 45 degrees. Keeping left foot on ground, take a step right with right foot. Try to get thighs parallel to floor, keeping a straight back. To add a strike, bring arms in front of body so that elbows are together and forearms are together, perpendicular to chest. In one motion, strike out to the left and right at the same time. Turn head quickly from left to right while you strike. Repeat 10 times.